Stephen Haynes bike plein air painting setup

Different Strokes

Photo: Stephen Haynes

Catching Up With Cycling Artist Stephen Haynes

If you spend much time hiking or biking in the wooded hills southeast of Pittsburgh, you might just run into an artist on a bike. Stephen Haynes, 43, who favors plein air painting to create his warm, impressionistic landscapes, is fond of loading up his mountain bike-trailer combo rig with paint and canvases and pedaling to his next point of inspiration. “One of the best things about it is you’re moving at a slow enough speed to register things,” Haynes says—not to mention, he’s also an avid mountain biker who just enjoys the ride.

When he’s not cruising the trails looking for a painting-worthy landscape, the Irwin, Pa., resident does freelance illustrations, teaches a class in expressive painting for his local art league, writes for Public Lands, and is “what we tongue-in-cheek call the house husband,” he says, “I do all the cooking, cleaning, shopping.” Haynes also recently submitted his second application for an art grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. You can find his work at The Trippe Gallery in Easton, Maryland, and on his website. 

We caught up with Haynes on a handful of topics, from painting at a bicycle pace and finding inspiration in the ordinary, to why he’s drawn to creating outdoors.

For Haynes, bicycles and work are often intertwined.

STEPHEN HAYNES: I was the art director for a publishing company called Rotating Mass Media for about a decade. They put out magazines focused on bicycle stuff, Bicycle Times and Dirt Rag magazine. Dirt Rag was known for its illustrative covers, and I ended up doing a lot of them. The publishing company folded in January of last year after 30 years in service. That was a bit of a low. 

But through my connections with the bike industry, I’ve been able to string together a fair amount of freelance stuff. People have come to recognize my style, and that normally translates into T-shirt designs. [Right now] I’m working on an illustration for an indoor bike park called The Wheel Mill for a T-shirt. It’s an astronaut on a BMX bike doing a tweaked-out turndown. It’s just sort of fun and playful, with a kind of ’80s vibe to it (the ’80s, the gift that keeps on giving to the art world).

In fact, a bike is a critical part of his painting setup. Haynes often heads out to paint outdoors, riding a mountain bike with a trailer loaded with his art supplies. 

I have a Burley Coho XC, which is meant to be a rough-and-ready trailer. It has a kickstand, a single wheel, and it tracks in line with the mountain bike. It gives me just enough space to fit my full French easel. I built these cardboard panel carriers that hold the wet canvas—I paint really thickly, so it gets interesting sometimes depending on how rough the terrain is. 

The best advice [for plein air painting] is, paint the first thing that makes you stop. The trap that plein air painters fall into is the thought process that, well, there’s probably something better. Then you spend three hours looking for something better. And, especially in a car, it can be difficult to find somewhere to stop. With a bike, not only is everything I need is right behind me, but I’m moving at a pace that’s faster than walking but slow enough that I can register certain things in the landscape.

Stephen Haynes plein air painting Photo: Brett Rothmeyer

A simple walk around the neighborhood is a source of inspiration.

I’ve found, especially during lockdown, I have really taken comfort in just the simple act of walking. I’ll often walk with a sketchbook. It’s interesting to really note the things that you see every day—really look at them. 

I’m always thinking about what the next painting I make will look like. In that respect, all the sketches that I do, all the little color studies, anything that I make or do, it’s influencing some later thing. When I’m painting, I like to think that all of that is in there somewhere. It’s like writing: You are influenced in your writing by who you’ve read in your lifetime. Your text is flavored in a certain way because of who you’ve read. If you read Vonnegut and Poe, it’s probably going to be dark and cynical. If you read somebody else, it’ll be different. You’re drawing upon it unconsciously. That’s what those sketches and notes do. It goes into the collective soup.

Haynes loves getting outdoors—and outdoor gear.

I really like hiking, I really like fishing. I have a canoe that I try to get out as often as I can. I’m not above the occasional campout via bike. At this point, I would consider myself a recreational mountain biker. I was doing really, really toe-in-the-water mountain biking prior to joining [Bicycle Times and Dirt Rag]. One of the downsides to that industry is, to perform at a certain level, you’ve got to be willing to spend the money on cycling equipment, and we’ve never had that ability. Until I worked for a place where cutting-edge stuff was just on hand, and you could see the good stuff actually makes a difference. You enjoy it more, because the equipment is performing at a level that keeps up with your aspirations. 

And being outdoors is a huge part of his work.

I’ve done a lot of plein air work. It’s French for in the open air: You’re physically there, standing in front of the subject, painting it in a representational way. I’ve done a fair amount of that, and done competitions where you go out and paint all week at various places and show them. But I’m also a bit of a lover of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and the stylized abstraction. I’ve actually been wanting to have my paintings be influenced by the landscape without representing the landscape.

There are times, in the way that I approach painting, where I try not to paint things. I’m not painting a sycamore tree, I’m painting the interplay of light on objects. If you can distill it down to what the light is doing, then you’re in a good place.

Haynes’ favorite places to paint don’t require much travel. 

I’ve painted at Pleasant Valley Park countless times. It’s a sort of non-manicured park. That suits me just fine. I’ve also taken to painting in my local cemetery. The vantage that it affords of the valley below is really nice, especially in the morning when you get this great raking light. You’re at such a distance that reducing it to shapes and values is a lot easier.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.